UKIP, “politically incorrect” jokes, and boundary pushing

Ukip, “politically incorrect” jokes, and boundary pushing 

I don’t like UKIP. There, I said it. I don’t like them. I’m bored of indulging them, indulging their little defenders and apologists. The party scares me enormously, with their insidious drip drip drip of what they call “political incorrectness” – a self-righteous, self-romanticising, self-indulgent way of describing any views that people object to. From the moment they proscribed HopeNotHate as a hate organisation, it was obvious what kind of organisation they are. They are extreme. I am talking specifically about the party itself, in its fundamental world view, which is extreme. How could you think HopeNotHate are a hate group unless you are extreme?

Is the party racist? That accusation inevitably gets met with a similar response to individual accusations of racism. That response is more or less: in my life I’ve done things which aren’t racist, and that proves that I’m not racist. Okay. Fine. I daresay there are people in UKIP who are not racist every minute of the day. There are people in UKIP who have done not-racist things in their lives. There are individuals in UKIP who aren’t white and the party is okay with that. (Give them all the cookies, seriously.) But there’s no getting around the fact that at their spring conference, comedian Paul Eastwood told a series of racist jokes, and not only did the crowds laugh, but Nigel Farage defended the jokes –  although he hadn’t actually heard them, he says – on the basis that they are ‘national, not racial’ stereotypes. Then fell back on the classic straw man defence: we must be careful not to kill comedy or censor people. No-one is doing either. What I am doing is saying that I do not trust the values and decency of a party that laughs at those sorts of jokes.  Farage also advocated a free market solution to racism; that if the man’s jokes are racist no-one will book him again. That might be true, but only if people talk about it and challenge him. How does he think these potential future customers find things out and make a decision about whether to book him again?

Nigel Farage’s response is so old it makes me yawn. Jokes matter. Why do people tell racist – or for that matter, sexist or homophobic – jokes? I don’t believe it’s just about making people laugh. There are much funnier ways to do that. What these people are doing is chipping away at our boundaries.

Comedians are usually quite rightly happy to say that’s what ‘controversial’ comedy is about. Pushing boundaries. Breaking taboos. In fact, many comedians embrace it as the whole point of their ‘controversial’ comedy.

I looked into sexist comedy because I was tired of arguing about rape jokes in terms of trauma and feelings and pain. Those things should matter to people but they obviously don’t, so I decided to look at the broader impact. And it turns out, quite a lot of people have looked into this. It has been found in more than one study that misogynistic jokes, especially those at the expense of a rape survivor, have a direct impact on things like the likelihood of a person believing rape survivors, the likelihood of them believing rape myths, and the likelihood of them blaming rape survivors for their own rape. Here’s just one article by the very funny comedian Raj Sivaraman which explains this rather expertly.

And you know what else? Comedy is honest. When we laugh, it comes from the gut.  Who we humiliate and who we tell to shut up and who we listen to and who we stand up for and who we use as a punchbag isn’t a random coincidence. We should look closely at who we think it’s okay to laugh at. It tells us who we are.

Boundary pushing isn’t an accident. It is an exertion of power. Sexist jokes – even ironic ones – serve to remind women that whoever they are, whatever they’ve achieved, misogynists hate them. Racist jokes – even ironic ones – serve to remind people of colour that however safe they feel, there are racist white people who hate them.  When you make bigoted jokes you are reminding marginalised people that their humanity is conditional. You are reminding them that you are being generous for not hating them, and deserve gratitude. When you make an ironic joke to show how funny it would be if you genuinely, non-ironically said a bigoted thing, you are demanding that the subject of your joke embrace you as not-a-bigot and laugh at your definition of what is and isn’t acceptable. Yes, it is a direct exertion of power – whether you consciously intend it that way or not.

This silly myth of “political correctness” is particularly dangerous for our generation because we don’t remember just how recently everybody’s boundaries were so different – and just how easily they could be pushed back. We laugh at rape jokes without remembering that even as recently as the 1990s, ‘rape’ didn’t mean a violation of your body without your consent, but rather, a crime of property, against not you but your husband or father, because rape within marriage was perfectly legal.

When people like Paul Eastwood make jokes about Somalians shooting people, mocks Asian accents, jokes about places being full of Arabs, and throws in insults about  Muslims and Poles to boot, to a roomful of laughing Ukippers, mostly wealthy, mostly white, some who hold positions of elected office, they are not just providing entertainment, they are pushing boundaries. And it works. Of course it does. One racist joke at a time, racial slurs go from “racist,” to “offensive,” to “colourful language”. One sexist joke at a time, sexist slurs go from “misogyny” to “risqué” to “poorly worded” to “old fashioned values”. And before we know it, oppressive bigotry is a matter of hurting people’s feelings with clumsy phrasing. The underlying values become normal.

I am tired of pretending that UKIP stand for anything nuanced or original. We can be capable of understanding why people get frustrated with the main parties, we can get that people relate to UKIP – Farage in particular – we can agree that Westminster is painfully out of touch, all while still holding and expressing the opinion that Nigel Farage is a deeply unpleasant man, and that the party’s core values are rooted in something very ugly. When challenged, they wipe policies off their website and start again. They apologise for their choice of words and explain that they weren’t insulting women for being sexual, they were insulting women for not doing enough housework. But the bigger picture is that any policy coming from the sort of people who will laugh publically and shamelessly at those sorts of jokes will be a disaster for the country. Your underlying values matter.

People tell me, hey, but Nigel Farage is likeable. Likeable? To whom? How can you find Nigel Farage “likeable”? He is only “likeable” if you “like” people because they have learned how to apply charm like a coat of bad paint. I judge people – especially potential future leaders – on their actions, values, and character, not whether they enjoy a pint and have a lopsided grin.

It is ironic that the media and political careerists are the first to accuse those of us who have no patience with the question-dodging, fact-dismissing, £2m-in-expenses-claiming Farage of being disinterested in why he connects with people. It is ironic because they are the ones interested in the psephology of the thing. Will it harm the blue vote or the red vote? Will they challenge Labour in the north or should they focus all resource on the south? Should the right have supported the alternative vote? These are the sort of people who say things like: “this is too important to be made into a political issue. ” What the hell are your politics about , if not important things? These are the sort of people who say: “he’s a nice person and I get on very well with him – obviously his politics are horrendous though.” Your politics come from your values. If your values are horrendous you’re not a very nice person.

And why do UKIP supporters still get these generous assumptions that UKIP connects with people because they’re disillusioned or vulnerable? There are a lot of people who do hold racist, sexist, and homophobic views and they’ve just been waiting for somebody “likeable” like Farage to come along and validate them.

What UKIP has done with their boundary pushing is make bigotry subjective. They’ve made it a matter of “political correctness”, a modern fad that some people just don’t sign up to. Far from all being shackled by this mysteriously-defined “political correctness”, it seems that we’re not supposed to call racism ‘racism’ anymore because it’s trivialising the debate or name calling or censorship or being out of touch.

So please, please, please can we drop all this yeah but Farage is a talented politician, yeah but UKIP make some valid points, yeah but Farage is charming and funny and likes a pint. I don’t judge people on whether they like a pint. I judge them on their actions. Just imagine those jokes at an office party. Imagine them in your parliament. Imagine them in the grocery store. Imagine them being normal and acceptable and just how people talk to one another. I find it hard to see it as a laughing matter.

‘Faux bisexuality’ is not what causes bi-erasure

Does “faux-bisexuality” cause bi-erasure?

You know how the “faux-bisexuality” argument goes by now, I’m sure. “Oh, these faux bisexuals. It’s these faux-bisexual women, lezzing it up for money, that makes life hard for ‘real’ bi women”.  The most recent example has been Rihanna and Shakira’s music video for Remember to Forget You.

And yep, the exasperation that a lot of us feel at seeing lesbian romance being appropriated and commodified is valid and fair, and I’m not about to dismiss it. Yes, I hear you. I’m also rolling my eyes and gritting my teeth a little when Rihanna and Shakira grind at each other through a big wall, while singing about a man.

But there’s also a few implications popping up around that narrative that are starting to concern me more than the sexy videos. (NB: my judgement may well be clouded about the sexy videos. They really are very sexy.)

I was on a date not long ago with a lesbian woman who, when I mentioned that I was bi, not gay, told me she used to be one of those terrible bi-haters herself. She told me how once upon a time she would never have dated any bisexual women, and didn’t take us seriously. She’s learned what silliness that all is, which is great. But then she said, as so many people do, that what makes it hard for bi women is those fake bisexuals, the ones who are a bit curious, and kiss girls or sleep with us, then always end up with guys.

I’ve heard this a lot. The fault is with those pesky fake bisexuals. I used to think it too. But the more I turn it over in my mind, the more I don’t like it. Look, I’ve been hurt by women like that, I’ve been screwed around and lied to and hey, I was angry, when I was younger, in a sort of friendzony, she-led-me-on kind of way. But you know, I’ve been led down the garden path by straight men, too. Not to mention a couple of gay women.

If you make a sweeping judgment about the entire concept of bisexuality based on a minority of the people who temporarily identify that way, then guess what? You are what makes it hard for bisexuals. Not some seventeen year old girl who wants to snog (do people still use that word? Whatever, I’m bringing it back) another girl at a party because, to her, it’s a bit naughty.

Not only is it mainly women that we shame for a bit of experimentation (men who experiment are, funnily enough, more likely to be labelled gay and in the closet, rather than straight and attention-seeking) but, more than that, it seems to be overwhelmingly ‘femme’ women who get the most stick. The presumption that fake bisexuality is entirely for the benefit of men – as opposed to, say, for the fun of being an exhibitionist – seems interlinked with the presumption that makeup, short skirts, and classically ‘femme’ fashions are also entirely for the benefit of men. At times, the ‘faux bisexuals who do it for attention’ narrative veers dangerously close to the standard girl-hate tropes of ‘I’m not like other girls,’ or ‘pretty popular girls are all bitches.’

Faux-bisexual women may be annoyingly appropriative, trying on my sexual orientation for a bit of a buzz then dropping it before it actually costs them anything, but they’re not why female bisexuality isn’t taken seriously. If they were, male bisexuality would be treated the same: dismissed as attention-seeking, or presumed to be entirely for the benefit of women. It isn’t.

Bella Qivst has written about this whole mess in the Guardian. It’s not a bad article. But it ends up sounding like the whole reason why female bisexuality isn’t taken seriously is because of straight women dabbling in it a bit. In her piece, she cites a survey which found “16% of women aged 16-44 have had a same-sex experience, yet far fewer label themselves as anything other than hetero” and goes on to ask if this is because bisexuals are stigmatised as greedy or untrustworthy. I think those figures show something quite different: that most people who have a same sex experience understand that it doesn’t make them bisexual. It also suggests to me a younger generation more into experience and pleasure than boxes and labels.

The way we talk about sexual and romantic orientation is changing. On one hand, we have more words for our erotic compasses than we’ve had maybe ever before. Yet when Tom Daley, for example, came out he very specifically did not identify himself as gay or bisexual or pansexual or anything else. He simply said he’s in a relationship with a man, and also fancies women. If a famous femme woman came out using the same language – “I’m in a relationship with a woman but I also fancy men” – would it be covered in the same way?

And that brings me back to Rihanna and Shakira. Ironically, it feels extraordinarily heteronormative to assume Shakira and Rihanna are both 100% at the hetero end of the Kinsey scale. How do we know? Who is to say?

I also wonder about pushing people who just want a fun experience into taking on a label they don’t fully identify with, or else denouncing them as attention-seeking fakes. We push people into identifying as bisexual when they’re straight, then wonder why so many straight people temporarily label themselves as bi. What right do I, as a bi woman, have to tell other women not to kiss each other, or explore their sexualities, or question whether they might be bisexual or not, or even take on the label of bisexual, as if I am the ultimate arbitrator of whose sexuality is authentic and whose isn’t? Does anybody tell straight people that every time they kiss or fondle or fuck somebody, they must be deeply, profoundly attracted to that person? That they must want to live by it, forever? That it can’t just be a moment of curiosity, or exhibitionism, or a dare at a party? I certainly don’t live by those standards myself. People fool around with other people they’re not that fussed about, out of curiosity, all the time. Hell, I’ve even had some pretty damn good sex with straight women who are in the process of figuring out who they are. If everybody is honest, everybody is consenting,  and everybody is having an orgasm, I’m not sure why anybody should care if she’s going to spend the rest of her life married to some man afterwards. Sure, you get entitled, arrogant straight women who assume you must be grateful for any sexual interest from them. Now, let me have a think if I can remember a time when a straight man was full of entitlement towards me.

I guess what I am trying to say is that the fact that fake bisexuality gets turned into a commodity isn’t the fault of straight women exploring themselves. It’s not the fault of women at all. It’s the fault of a sexist society that treats female sexuality as a commodity and treats women as objects, irregardless of what they do. It’s rooted in the same old fundamental lack of respect for women’s agency, especially when it comes to sex, which means that when women say we’re bi, we’re disbelieved, when women say we’re lesbians, we’re disbelieved, when women say they like sex with men they’re disbelieved, when women say no to sex with men we’re disbelieved.

And I feel like the best way we can start to tackle that is to listen to what women say about their own sexualities, let women express themselves however suits us best, and not be policing each other.

When right wing journalists try to blame the working class for racism

Immigration and class: When right wing journalists try to blame the working class for racism

Occasionally you come face to face with an argument that riles you in its offensive stupidity before you can quite pinpoint exactly why. This particular argument comes up a lot, in one form or another: “immigration is rough on working class people; rich people like having nannies and gardeners and cheap food, but working class people are pissed off that the foreigners took their jobs. I’m personally not one of those nasty intolerant people, but won’t someone think of the poor working class people, it’s a lot for them to cope with.”

We see it from both sides of the political divide; we see it in the way the EDL are mocked more for their bad spelling and bad haircuts than for their fascism. We see it in the constant assertions from the media that there’s some innate conflict for the Labour party over immigration; the liberal bisexual hippy woman Guardian reader in Islington versus the traditional working class white man on a council estate dichotomy. (There are clearly no bisexuals, women, non-white people or hippies in council estates. Nor are there any racists in Islington. Media fact for you.)

Julia Hartley-Brewer from the Daily Express came out it with again on Question Time last week, but it’s not even her comment that’s triggered this post, really. It’s only because she put it in such honest language that the full offensive absurdity of it hit me. I’ve been feeling my skin crawl when people on the left and the right have implied the very same things for a long time.

We need to stop accepting the simplistic assumption that racism and xenophobia are somehow working class phenomena when in fact these things are top down evils. There’s plenty of both among journalists and media owners, many with salaries north of £100,000 a year, wealthy MPs, and even the very pinnacle of the British class system – the Royal Family.

It’s also the narrow dismissal of what immigrants bring to the country – indeed, the implicit conditionality of a migrant’s humanity being founded in what they “bring” to the country, for “our” benefit – that irks me. The insinuation that you’d only  be pro-immigration if you had an immigrant as a gardener, but not if you had immigrants in your class at school or in your local A&E or living in your street is saying that immigrant communities are great at making exotic food and make lovely nannies, but they’re not so jolly to actually live alongside. That is a profoundly unpleasant thing to say.

Maybe your best friend at school is an immigrant, or the child of an immigrant. Maybe your neighbour who feeds your cat when you’re away is an immigrant. Maybe your partner is an immigrant. But these experiences are all erased by that kind of rhetoric.

It reminds me of Richard Littlejohn’s sneering assertion that Jack Monroe couldn’t possibly be working class or be making cheap simple recipes that are useful to people without much money because poor people “don’t eat pasta, they eat spaghetti out of tins.” In other words, if you don’t fit the stereotype of what an extremely rich journalist, who mostly lives in a different country anyway, thinks a poor British person must live like, then you’re clearly some kind of fraud. That is a very special level of arrogance.

In fact, the Daily Express’s own media pack says their readership is 57% ABC1 adults. I am tired of seeing rich people project their own xenophobia and racism on to working class people. Can’t they at least take responsibility for it?

Are there racist working class people? Obviously. To say nothing of the fact that people have complex, nuanced views about things. People may think immigration is too high in some areas but low in others. People may think immigration should be recorded better but not necessarily cut. People may think immigration would be fine if minimum wage regulations were always enforced but find it hard to believe that is a reality that will ever materialise. But racism is top down, and it always has been. Is racism and xenophobia uniquely working class, or even disproportionately working class? No.

We might instead ask: does immigration disproportionately have a negative impact on working class people and poorer communities? Yes, it probably does. In fact, it would be surprising if it didn’t because pretty much everything else does. Of course working class people aren’t sharing equally in the economic benefits that immigration brings. That’s hardly a problem with immigration. It’s a problem with economics.

Perhaps that’s the thing that’s really enraging to me. The fact that a whole class of people can notice how immigration impacts the guy living on a council estate much more harshly than a wealthy lady living in Kensington, then identify the problem as immigration, not the differences in the lives and opportunities between those two individuals.

After all, if you took away all the immigration from Britain, those two hypothetical lives would still be grossly unequal. But if you tackled the inequalities between them, you might just mitigate some of these so-called “problems” with immigration at the same time. Radical I know, but maybe that is where our anger should be directed.

Rape, anger, and why “forgiveness” does not mean “shut up”

Rape, anger and lectures on forgiveness

The recent story of Katja Rosenberg who forgave her rapist has triggered something in me. Not her story itself, so much as the elevation of it by others to some kind of desirable ideal. You may know who I mean. Those people who like to go on about forgiveness without having experienced anything they’ve ever needed to muster the strength to forgive.

We live in a world where people love telling rape survivors what we should or shouldn’t do – both before and after the fact. Don’t get drunk. Don’t get in taxis. Don’t have casual sex. Don’t wear miniskirts. Don’t be timid. Don’t be assertive.

Then, after: don’t be angry. Don’t you dare make other men feel uncomfortable, even for one second, about what you’ve experienced. Don’t be a feminist. Don’t bring gender into it. Don’t feel shame. Don’t feel unashamed. Don’t be put off sex. Don’t carry on being too sexually licentious. Don’t make any noise. Don’t think you can express solidarity with other women who’ve experienced this same violation in a different context. You’re supposed to be competing over whose was worse, not supporting each other.

And packed in there, often from the “well-intentioned”, no end of lectures about the joys of forgiving rapists. Maybe you’d be better off if you forgave him? It was a long time ago. Move on. You have to let the past go. Stop letting this hang over you. Just shut up. Stop being so bitter.

I am not knocking or being dismissive of forgiveness here. But that isn’t forgiveness. It’s wanting a quiet life. And too easily, it becomes rape apologism, it becomes a minimisation of what happened. Look on the bright side. Much worse rapes happen every day. Yes, for some people, that is a “bright side.” You’re lucky, he didn’t kill you. And it becomes an exertion of control. I’m trying to help. I know what’s good for you, if only you’d shut up and take it. Why are you crying?

I thought I had forgiven, seconds after it happened. That was horrific but he probably didn’t mean it. That was terrifying but at least I’m still here. That was agony but its only physical. I will pretend it didn’t happen. I will just put it out of my mind. In the years that followed, I was constantly doing all those things that people nowadays tell me would be the healthiest thing for me. I did those things naturally, to protect myself. To protect him.

I wasn’t forgiving him at all. I wanted a quiet life. I was trying to “forgive” without first recognising and allowing myself to feel the awfulness of what happened; without recognising that he chose to do what he did; without even calling it rape in my own head. That’s not forgiveness. It’s denial.

Katja Rosenberg says that it helped her to see the rapist as small, pathetic, helpless – no longer a dominating powerful force over her life. I can see how that’s empowering. I did that for years too. But sometimes this happens the opposite way around, as well. You make excuses, you apologise, you feel terrible asking for any justice because you don’t want to ruin your rapist’s life. Because you see him as a bit pathetic, or helpless, or just an ordinary lad doing what lads do. It is hard to step back from your own blurring of the lines and see him for what he is – a power-tripper, a bully, who used his body violently against you against your will to feel good about himself. To assert his masculinity, whatever that means. To put you – to put women – in our place. A rapist.

Forgiveness is beautiful but forgiveness does not mean what some of you think it means. Forgiveness does not mean shut up. Forgiveness does not mean an absence of anger, or an absence of condemnation. Forgiveness does not mean seeing his side of it or blurring the lines. Forgiveness does not mean erasure. Forgiveness does not mean a quiet life. It means the opposite. To forgive you have to first feel the full force of what it is you are forgiving.

Getting yourself to a place where you can forgive, if you want to do that, if it is right for you, like Katja Rosenberg did, that’s a tremendous thing to do. But when people tell you to “forgive” because they think you need to be less angry or less depressed or quieter or because they think you need to be more understanding about the rapist’s weaknesses or feelings, what they want is a quiet life, what they want is control, what they want is for their worlds not to be disrupted.

I say to those people, with the full spirit of healing, calmness and forgiveness in my heart: fuck you.

Yes, children’s books can be literature

I was rather surprised to hear that Kent University was the university in question that had made the questionable “gaffe” of implying that they don’t see children’s books as literature. Perhaps it seemed particularly strange to me because Kent is the university I studied literature at myself, and my course included a so-called ‘wild module’ on children’s literature. I would quite unapologetically praise that module, because it was brilliant. I was very glad to hear they’d apologised and clarified what they meant.

However, it seems some of the great minds of academia did not share my joy. Bummer.  In fact, Jonathan Myerson from City University is apparently so passionate in his belief that children’s literature isn’t real literature that he wrote a whole article about it. I made the innocent mistake of reading it. And that was when I became really pissed off. What children’s literature has he even read? He either hasn’t read much, or he – ironically – didn’t actually understand what he was reading. The latter would be quite funny, given that he’s attacking it for its simplicity.

Ironically, it is his generalisations, not children’s books, which are simplistic. Children’s literature absolutely does explore the full range of the “human experience.” It just does it in a way that children can understand. Children’s experiences are part of the human experience, and indeed, shape who we are as adults. Children are – shock! – human.

Myerson says children’s books cannot be literature because they create “scenarios where good and evil were clearly defined and rarely muddied”. This is utter tosh. Children’s books are often much more morally complex than many books for adults. You can’t just make a philosophical argument at a child that will ring true because it fits their prejudices. Children are intellectually honest. If a character is all good or all bad they won’t relate.

Myerson explicitly mentions JK Rowling as an example which made me laugh out loud because the Harry Potter books are probably the worst example he could possibly give of moral simplicity. Has he actually read these books? When Sirius points out to Harry and his friends that the world isn’t as simple as good people and death eaters, it’s not a throwaway comment – it’s highlighting the way Rowling explores the complexities of human nature throughout the whole series.

Here are some examples just off the top of my head: Scrimegour is a hypocritical, cowardly politician, but it is also revealed that he allows himself to be tortured to death rather than give Harry up. Sirius is cruel and unpleasant to Kreacher, and is rather intolerant about elf-rights, but he’s also fearless and loyal. Kreacher himself is obnoxious to the point of being contemptible, but he is also brutally oppressed – and astonishingly brave. Even Voldemort is shown in a complex light. When Dumbledore shows Harry memories from Voldemort’s childhood and asks: “could you be feeling sorry for Lord Voldemort, Harry?” this question probably applies to most readers at this point, too. Rowling isn’t satisfied just handing her readers an evil monster. We are expected to challenge our assumptions and ask ourselves: but why he is so hateful? How did he become like this? What do we have in common with him?

And as for Snape, where to begin? You could ask a roomful of Harry Potter fans, of any age, whether Snape is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and we could debate it for hours. On one hand, he’s a passive aggressive entitled douchebag. But he truly does love Lily, until he dies, which is sort of beautiful. Or is it creepy? And does he really love her, anyway? Is what he calls love just a selfish projection of his own ego? Is it more about wanting possession and control than love? He calls her a Mudblood. So in the allegorical context of the book, he’s kind of racist. He petulantly clings to grievances from the past. And yet, he probably evolves morally and emotionally more than any other character in the books.  He’s both extremely cowardly, and extremely brave.

Myerson says the difference between “literature” and “children’s books” isn’t down to the quality of the writing but the nature of the subjects the books explore, and the nuances in how it’s done. But that doesn’t hold up at all. There isn’t any big difference in the subjects taken on by children’s literature and the subjects taken on by adult literature. Why should it be the case that the very same themes are deemed literary if told through the eyes of an adult, but not through the eyes of a child, if as Myerson admits, the quality of the writing itself is the same? To take Harry Potter again: if an adult book explored that moment a child realises their parent is not perfect, heightened by the pain of grief for that parent, which inevitably makes that moment where you have the image of them destroyed even more profound, would that suddenly become literature? Why is it suddenly not so when JK Rowling writes it for children to read at the very time they are experiencing such situations in real life? Is that not part of the human experience? Is grief not part of the human experience? Myerson might not know this but children grieve too.

When I was small my mum died, and let me tell you, children do grieve. And there were books, children’s books, which dealt with grief – an enormously complex part of the human experience – in words I didn’t yet have. It’s condescending to say that these writers somehow simplified the experience by writing it for children. The language may be simple but what it is expressing and exploring is not. You’d think a literary scholar, of all people, might know that.

Children’s literature can do exactly what Myerson himself says literature ought to do: hold a mirror up to human life, reflect it back to us, throw up “unwinnable dilemmas,” ponder why we will never be able to solve them. Myerson says it’s good that children’s books don’t do this because we should protect children from these “unwinnable dilemmas.” Does he think children never experience them in real life? Does he think childhood is always without trauma? Does he think childhood is just lollipops and fairies? Does he think nothing any child experiences as a human could be equivalent to his own experience as a human? He is wrong.

It’s not just Rowling, of course. There are countless other children’s authors who examine the world through the eyes of children, who validate and question the world alongside their young readers. When I was about 7 or 8 I remember reading a beautiful book in school called the Time-Travelling Cat, by Julia Jarman. I haven’t read it since I was small but I still remember parts of it vividly. It was a very poignant depiction of a child coming to terms with not just his own grief after the death of his mother, but also the strange confusion of watching a parent grieve, when you’re too young to even understand what that is. I suppose the cat makes it seem childish and silly to the likes of Myerson. But the projection of loss on to another creature – a pet or a teddy or even a sibling – isn’t some made-up fantasy about cute animals, it’s a common part of the grieving process. It is, in other words, part of the human experience. Would we tell a child psychologist that they aren’t a proper psychologist because they only understand about children, and so cannot possibly be dealing with the full spectrum of human experience? Children’s experiences are as important as those of adults.

The more I think about it, the more I find these assertions that children’s literature is all simplistic and narrow in theme vaguely offensive. I think it was in the Time-Travelling Cat – I may be misremembering, but in any case, it was a children’s book – where a child says “I hate her, I hate her for dying!” Is that a morally simplistic thing to explore? The anger of grief? Many children know very well that the world isn’t all good or all bad. And only allowing us to read books that pretend otherwise is the opposite of protecting us, thanks.

And when it comes to so-called ‘young adult’ fiction – because Myerson is careful to include YA fiction in his article – it becomes even more ridiculous. In year 7, we read a book at school called Tell Alice, by Frances Usher. It ties together two lives, a girl living in contemporary Britain and the diary of a girl living around 1914. The 1914 character – Jessie – has a big sister called Alice, who takes on a sort of mother role in the house, and who then dies. Grief, loss, suicide, the projection of emotion into music (yes, Myerson, children experience music, too, which is also part of the human experience), women’s roles and rights, the complex web of changing class lines and the guilt of aspiration. It talked about suicide, mental health, and self-determination. Are these things not “part of the human experience”? There is countless adult “literature” which deals with far more trivial subjects. And one of the most important things about that book was that people are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Jessie’s father is proud and sometimes cruel but loving, hard-working and strongly ethical. (A bit like Billy’s father in Billy Elliott – which may or may not count as being about the human experience since we don’t really know if it’s ‘for’ children or adults). Meanwhile, Joanna – the modern day character – is struggling with anger and forgiveness towards her dad, who walked out on her and her mother. It’s a very complex, very human experience, and uniquely that of a child, that Usher was exploring in that book. Loyalty to her mum, feelings of betrayal when her mum starts to forgive him, anger that her dad tries to buy her affection with gifts, not to mention being a kid and having to learn how to deal with sexist pervy adults – are these things not part of the human experience? Do they not count because she’s only thirteen in the book? Do they only count if they are written about for adults, taken and re-framed from the adult’s perspective, so that the child’s voice is no longer central? Even though they are specifically about children’s experiences?

And then there are writers like Jacqueline Wilson, whose books cover everything from divorce, eating disorders, grief, sexuality, child neglect, sexual abuse, predatory older men, the psychology of sibling rivalries and, of course, sex.

(I feel like I should mention Roahl Dahl here but frankly that could be an entire blog post of its own. So I will just say this: Roahl Dahl is clearly literature. You’re welcome.)

Literary experts like Myerson should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves for missing the point so embarrassingly of the very books they disparage for being too simple. It takes a tremendous talent to explore such weighty subjects in language that children can understand. That’s not because, as Myerson so patronisingly puts it, the books stay with you when you go on to read or write adult fiction. They can be literary works in their own right. They are about the profound complexities of life, and not only that, but they are often far more profound, because these authors can’t rely on academic cleverness or waffling purple prose to trick people into thinking they are a talented writer. They either reflect truths about the world or they don’t.

To say children’s literature doesn’t shape the human experience is like saying ‘the human experience’ begins at adulthood. And when does adulthood even begin? Eighteen? Why? Because we say so? I was read Shakespeare as a kid, as well as Enid Blyton. I liked Midsummer Nights Dream  mainly because of the fairies and the funny names. Children can enjoy literature for adults just as adults around the world fell in love with Harry Potter. These silly lines drawn up by academics make no sense. To think these books aren’t about the human experience suggests you didn’t actually understand them. And that makes me think some of you academics are not  be quite the ‘experts’ on literature that you think you are.

2 MINUTE RANT: ‘Why is there no white history month?’

There is no white history month not because it’s not needed, but because it very much is.

It’s that time of year again, when people have been asking the dreaded question: Black History Month? Why is there no White History Month! And the more patient among us repeat the same glaring, obvious answers, year after year. Answers like, “what the other 11 months of the year”, “create one yourself if you’re so upset”,” why not join in with Black History Month, you might learn something”, and “shut up you big annoying racist child.”

But there’s another, more serious, answer itching away underneath all these. There is no White History Month not because it’s not needed, but because it very much is.

When we talk about Black History Month, I admit that the first things to spring to my mind, instinctively, are along the lines of slavery and civil rights; those sorts of subjects. But that’s ridiculous. That is me making Black History all about me, all about racism – all about white people. Black History is presumably everything from Aztec art to the ancient Egyptians, the Ottoman Empire to Moroccan architecture. Even the history of Jesus Christ is surely ‘Black History’ to come extent? Slavery, civil rights, and empire, they are actually the bits of ‘White History’ which we aren’t proud of, and so on which our collective education is woefully poor. The bits of ‘White History’ we shuffle into ‘Black History’ and expect black people to educate us about.

Slavery is obviously ‘Black History’ – but it’s also ‘White History’. If we were to have a White History Month, a month where we actually studied ‘whiteness’ as a construct – studied what it means to be white in a political, historical context – these things would be at the top of our subject list. Slavery, empire, racial oppression – these things should be our responsibility to learn about, to teach ourselves about. We would talk about them not just in the context of the people they happened to, but in the context of the people who did them.

For all the ranting about political correctness gone mad in the classroom, I think it’s quite possible to argue that most state schools do not teach nearly enough about the history of what we now call ‘multiculturalism,’ do not teach the connection between immigration and the British Empire and the Commonwealth, and do not trace back the family tree of empire, slavery, well-intentioned liberalism, and modern economics.

The question ‘Why is there no White History Month?’ is asked as a derail, as a trolling question, to imply a double standard. And there is a double standard, but it’s a different one than the questioner means.  The question should really be: why do we only study ‘Whiteness’ as a political thing in the context of Black History Month? Why don’t we debate who profited and who lost out from the politics of race, why don’t we learn about the impact of racist myths on education, on women’s bodily autonomy, on property rights? Why don’t we debate the merits of slavery reparations?

Why don’t we have a White History Month? We don’t have a White History Month because we think we don’t need one, but we do. We don’t have a White History Month because we don’t think racism is our problem. We don’t have a White History Month not because we’re trying to erase ‘Black History,’ but because we are trying to erase and forget our part in it. We don’t have a White History Month because we expect black people educate us about our own damn history. So if you want a white history month, let’s have one. Let’s study the history of ‘whiteness’. How such a concept was constructed, by whom, and for whom. You want to study what it means to be white? Then let’s study ‘White History.’ All of it.

Victim-blaming and control – when sexism doesn’t ‘hurt men too’

If rape isn’t a gendered crime, why are women always taught that it is?

Thanks, Slate. Thanks, Cee-Lo Green. Thanks world.  Another spate of victim-blaming articles and debates in which a bunch of lovely, well-intentioned people play devil’s advocate about whether it was your fault you were raped or not. Hypothetically, you see. In the abstract. We’re debating whether women in general could prevent rape by doing x or y. Not you, dear.

The real lived experiences of victim-blaming, though, they are there too, under the surface. It was my fault. I should have done this. I shouldn’t have done that. Self-blame haunts you, but it also protects you. If it was your fault, maybe you can make sure it never happens again. Maybe you can make it something you have control over.

But you can’t. Rapes happen in all sorts of cultures, in all sorts of societies, and the only thing that even appears to consistently correlate with how common rape is in any given society is the treatment of women within that society.

When I say the way women are treated, I don’t just mean officially, but culturally. Is it generally accepted that women are a bit silly, a bit attention-seeking? That the things women care about are a bit trivial? Is it widely believed that women don’t like each other, but pretend that we do? That women lie? Do we let our boundaries get tested, do we accommodate things we’d rather not, are we made to feel guilty if we say no? Is that the culture we live in? Are those things normal? So normal we almost don’t notice them?

Not only do I believe rape itself is about control but I also believe victim-blaming is about control. It is the worst kind of benevolent sexism. The way victim-blaming plays out in practice sums up everything wrong with well-intentioned people kindly explaining to women what is best for us, for our own good. The misogyny of rape isn’t just about the physical act itself. It is about the fear of rape – and what that does to women’s freedoms.

Why is it that we are so quick to remember that men get raped too yet so slow to notice that all the tips, suggestions and instructions on how to avoid it are aimed at women?  If rape isn’t a gendered crime, why are women always taught that it is?

The problem with ‘helpful’ ideas for what women should do to avoid rape isn’t just that they implicitly victim-blame. They also exert control over women – all women. They feed into our cultural norms, into what becomes known as ‘common sense’, providing a drip drip drip of unofficial rules that we must follow, until women have a theoretical right to do all sorts of things, but that theoretical right exists alongside a tacit understanding that walking home late at night, or working in certain professions, or getting in a taxi, or being drunk at a party aren’t things we can reasonably expect to do without violence.

And the truth is, even though most men are not rapists, many perfectly nice non-rapist men still benefit from a culture where women are scared of rape.

Nice Guys who get aggressively upset when you don’t magically suck their dicks in gratitude at their Niceness are the obvious offenders. But there are other guys who benefit – really decent ones, who are just looking out for you. They mean well when they say, don’t go clubbing, don’t drink too much, don’t meet up with strangers, don’t walk home too late, don’t get in a taxi, don’t wear a dress, don’t wear heels, don’t wear things that unzip, don’t laugh, don’t flirt, don’t be timid. They wouldn’t rape you for not doing these things. That would be an offensive suggestion! But other guys – the Bad Ones – they might rape you if you don’t do what they say. So we better do what they say. Because of the threat of violence. But not from them, because they’re not violent.

They don’t have to be.

I’m not saying everyone who issues this kind of advice has the conscious intention of controlling women, or is a misogynist, or is anything other than a perfectly lovely person. What I am saying, though, is that, however well-meaning these suggestions are, the consequence for women is the same: to restrict our liberties, and restrict what we can realistically consider to be our rights.

And for those women who are raped, these ‘helpful’ suggestions make it harder. They make it harder to report anything that happens to us after we break one of these often totally contradictory rules. If we do report such incidents, these rules make it harder for us to get justice.  They make it harder for us to talk to each other and support each other about what happened to us, because we are made to feel our rapes are all different. These rules pit us against each other, and pin our hopes of justice or safety or being taken seriously on our rape being ‘worse’, and by default, other women’s being ‘better’. It stops us uniting. It makes it harder for us to name what happened to us. It makes it harder for us to say the word ‘rape.’

Victim-blaming doesn’t make me angry because it hurts my feelings, or offends me, or makes me feel guilty – even though it does. It makes me angry because it silences. It controls. And silence and control can never help address the problem of rape because they are, whether intentional or not, a direct exertion of power over women. And that, of course, is the entire problem in the first place.